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Volume #1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006

The Thunder Child: Movies
The Forbidden Planet: The 50th Anniversary
by Ryan Brennan

The Forbidden Planet was released on March 15, 1956. It will be celebrating its 50th anniversary on March 15, 2006.

One thing you can say about M-G-M is that when the studio decided to produce a movie, they put all the formidable talent of their various departments behind the project. As the Tiffany of the movies, M-G-M had generally shied away from the genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Freaks (1933), Mark of the Vampire (1935), Devil Doll (1936), and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1941) were among their sporadic attempts.

So it was that when the studio decided to produce its first science fiction film, the result was an "A" picture that would try to pull out all the stops and utlilize the very latest in cinema technology, both in production and exhibition.

The film chosen as their initial foray into the genre that was the major trend of the 1950s was Forbidden Planet (1956). This month marks the 50th anniversary of M-G-M's classic and it is only right that we take a look back.

Forbidden Planet, a reworking of Shakespeare's The Tempest, tells the tale of an interplanetary rescue mission to a distant human settlement on Altair-4, the forbidden planet of the title. Once the mission crew has landed they are met by Robby, a sophisticated robot, a hint of the technological marvels to come. They discover that the only survivors of the settlement are the scientist Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Morbius explains that everyone else, including his wife, were killed by a mysterious, unseen creature, a creature that has, coincidentally, been absent, lo, these many years.

But not for long. With the space crew sniffing around the local sights, including Altaira, the creature reappears. Or doesn't. It's invisible, the only clues to its existence the footprints, damage, and death it leaves behind. Now, the mysteries of Altair-4 only become more intriguing. Altaira has a unique bond with animals, calming even the fiercest of jungle beasts. Yet, after kissing the Commander (Leslie Nielsen) her pet tiger tries to kill them.

Then, Morbius reveals the existence of a vanished civilization, the world of the Krel, an impossibly advanced race whose accomplishments are found underground in a maze of machinery stretching 20 miles deep. This 2000 year-old self-repairing machinery seems to exist for the sole purpose of producing energy. But to what purpose?


Morbius has subjected himself to the Krel "plastic educator," a machine designed to teach Krel children but potentially fatal to humans. Morbius survived the exposure and doubled his intellect. With his increased mental abilities he has now managed to work out that the Krel were aiming to produce solid matter purely through the use of their minds. Somehow, though, the entire civilizations was wiped out in a single night. Morbius is unable to surmise anything beyond that point.

The ship's Commander and Altaira fall in love while the attacks of the invisible creature increase. At one point, the crew is able to catch it in a cross fire of blaster beams, vaguely outlining its horrific contours, but doing no damage to the beast.

Eventually, a connection between the Krel machinery and the beast is made. The Krel could create solid matter with their conscious minds but, unknown to them, their subconscious minds could also create. Creatures from the Id were released, thoughts and impulses kept in check by the conscious rational mind were unleashed during their sleep. Jealousy, hate and envy all found unwilled expression in one night of terror and destruction.

"My evil self is at the door, and I have no power to stop it!"

In the exciting conclusion Morbius, Altaira and the Commander are locked in the Krel laboratory as the creature from the Id burns a hole through the impregnable Krel vault door, the expansive wall of power meters, each registering 10 times the power of the previous meter, flaring into life as the Id monster summons the nearly infinite strength of the Krel machinery.

Although Forbidden Planet ended up looking like an "A" picture, it actually began life as an M-G-M "B." Studio head Dore Schary had shied away from the science fiction genre, not wanting to produce a picture like the others he had seen. The idea of Fatal Planet, as it was then called, struck him as different and he greenlit the production, but on a "B" budget. Walter Pidgeon was the biggest M-G-M star that the production could afford. Although a major star for the studio in the 1940s, Pidgeon's light had dimmed by the 1950s. The rest of the cast was filled out with contract players like Francis, Nielsen and a host of actors who would later make their marks in television.

But something happened during pre-production. This film offered the various art departments an opportunity the Earthbound, realistic dramas of the studio never could. It inspired them to higher artistic goals.

Paperback adaption

And when Schary saw the sets taking shape on the soundstage, he, too, was excited and inspired by the special nature of the project. More and more money was approved, the budget of under $1 million eventually reaching nearly $2 million by some estimates. The result was possibly the best-looking of all 1950s science fiction films, a real audio and visual extravaganza in CinemaScope and stereophonic sound. Only about half-a-dozen films of the decade achieved such glorious spectacle.

Robby the Robot model
Forbidden Planet had little influence, though, on films that followed. Its ideas were, in general, too esoteric to be copied and its box office success is contested. In a Cinefantastique magazine article credited to Fred Clarke and Steve Rubin, the writers quote a Variety report of $1.6 million. In that same article Dore Schary says those numbers are "absolutely wrong." Nicholas Nayfack, the producer, claims a figure of $4,550,000. Regardless, a lot of money was spent to achieve what was seen on the screen and without the film being perceived as a huge hit. Other genre producers, lacking the support of a M-G-M, would not be able to imitate the glossy production quality or number of special effects nor would be willing unless the cost could be recouped.

What made Forbidden Planet unique was the sophistication of its science fiction ideas. Whereas most of the other science fiction films of the period were concerned with invading xenomorphs (aliens to you, bub), early attempts at space travel, mutants created by science and/or radiation gone wild, or the charms of Jules Verne, Forbidden Planet was an adventure set in the far future, far from Earth and anything to do with Earth.

The film attempted to use hardcore science fiction ideas in a thought provoking manner. Although there had been many films with robots, this was the first film to introduce, and use quite dramatically at a critical plot juncture, Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics. These laws, which basically rule out robots deliberately or indirectly causing harm to humans, was recently the central concept behind Will Smith's science fiction action film I, Robot.

Although Forbidden Planet does have its monster, it isn't your typical alien or mutant, not even a visible creature, but a creature conjured up by an individual from their own mind. Borrowing from Freud, it's actually from the subconscious so there is no control of it whatsoever. It feeds off energy, and has at its disposal a source so vast that, for all intent and purpose on any scale we can grasp, its power is infinite. All of this is the creation and accomplishment of an alien race advanced beyond our imaginations, working from the power of their minds on a scale that dwarfs the achievements of Babylon, the Egyptian pharaohs, or ourselves.

To the film's detriment, the ship's military demeanor is firmly rooted in the milieu of a 1950s aircraft carrier or battleship. This is the aspect that looks forward to Star Trek, in which the space crew is just another bunch of ordinary people who happen to be in space. The spaceship sails through the sea of space and docks at the exotic port of call Altair-4. Naturally, these sailors, like any sailor dating back to time immemorial, haven't seen a woman in a long time and fall all over themselves when confronted with the beautiful, and strangely impervious Altaira. In contrast to the adult conceptual ideas, a great deal of screen time is devoted to the juvenile hijinks of the Commander and his Lt. (Jack Kelly) as they vie for the attention of this girl who has never seen a man other than her father. Adding to the 1950s construct is another "comedy" subplot concerning the efforts of the cook (Earl Holliman) to secure plenty of liquor before they shove off again into dry space.

"I'm in command of 18 competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days. It would have served you right if he... they... oh go on, get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard - and then I'll put more guards on the guards."

Actually, for all the criticism given Leslie Nielsen's acting, his scenes with Anne Francis, where he appears awkward and ill-at-ease with her, have a sort of naturalness in their playing that is totally at odds with the rest of the film, but achieve a small level of truthfulness on their own.

Spaceship model
Anne Francis' Altaira was a daring portrayal of a woman for its time. She is an intelligent, curious young woman raised by a scientist. Because of her innocence and lack of experience she is somewhat like Eve in the garden, totally unaware of, but totally comfortable with, her sexuality and, devoid of any sense of shame, free to be frank, even blunt in her curiosity. Whereas there were limits in the 1950s, one can be sure that had this film been made in later decades, Altair's scientific curiosity would not have stopped or been allowed to stop at a mere couple of kisses.
And, no doubt, the hints that Morbius' interest in his daughter might go deeper than mere paternal concern would be more fully developed in a modern film.

The most unique character of the film is Robby. Robots had been popular in the movies for quite some time, a frequent staple of the serials. But usually they were clinking, clanking affairs, sometimes radio-controlled, most often used for nefarious purposes. Robby acted autonomously, could speak intelligently (voiced by actor Marvin Miller), would not harm humans, and was even funny. He was, simply, cool and, by far, the best robot seen in a movie to that date.

Following this film there were a number of other robot films that may have been inspired by Robby, films like The Invisible Boy (which actually uses Robby) and The Colossus of New York. Star Wars has since produced the most famous robots in cinema history but the closest anyone has come to duplicating Robby was with the creation of the popular Robot for the TV series Lost in Space. It may be in this area that Forbidden Planet has shown its greatest influence.

The greatest controversy regarding Forbidden Planet concerns the music score. Many have complained that the electronic tonalities of Louis and Bebe Barron aren't even music and harm the film. These people would probably have been happier with a score similar to Herman Stein's overlooked This Island Earth (now available from Monstrous Movie Music). At this far remove it is perhaps difficult to imagine the movie without this score, one that was extremely experimental not only in how it was produced (at a cost of $1,000 per minute for the 25 minute score) but in its total divergence from any other type of music used in movies to that time. Not to mention its function both as music and sound effects. Say what they will about its aesthetic pleasures, the critics can't deny the trailblazing nature of this score.

Forbidden Planet has been available on DVD for some time but there has been no special edition such as was once available on a superb, extra features-laden Criterion laser disc. Happily, a special edition is currently in the works but no release date has been announced. The movie still captures the imaginations of viewers and there is no doubt that a new DVD will be a popular release.

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